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In the early years of this parliament it often seemed to Labour MPs that next May’s general election was one they couldn’t lose. Support for the Liberal Democrats had collapsed to single figures in the polls. The Conservatives, who won just 36 per cent of the vote in the most auspicious circumstances in 2010, had retoxified their brand by abolishing the top rate of income tax, introducing the bedroom tax and breaking their vow not to reorganise the NHS. Ukip had divided the right in the manner that the Social Democratic Party divided the left in the 1980s. The economy had recovered at its slowest rate since the Long Depression of the 1870s. Finally, in defiance of a prophesied bloodbath and its schismatic history, Labour had remained united.
The party’s sanguineness was matched by the moroseness of its opponents. “While the Conservatives struggle to piece together two-fifths of the electorate, Labour’s core support plus left-leaning former Lib Dems could theoretically give Ed Miliband close to 40 per cent of the vote without needing to get out of bed,” Lord Ashcroft, the psephologist and Tory peer, warned his side in 2011 – and many agreed. In anticipation of defeat, Conservative minds turned to the leadership election to come. Their ill-disguised gloom reinforced the opposition’s bullishness.
To Labour MPs contemplating the state of their party, those days seem distant. “Morale has never been lower,” one shadow cabinet minister told me. Six months away from the general election, the party’s poll lead has withered to a single point or, some surveys suggest, has eroded entirely. Labour’s Scottish fortresses, which it successfully defended in 2010, winning 41 seats, are in danger of falling to the SNP. Ed Miliband’s personal ratings have entered the subterranean territory hitherto reserved for Nick Clegg. The Conservatives’ lead in the polls on the economy has increased to a record level of 16 points. Ukip’s advance is threatening key target seats. And the previously united left is fragmenting as the Greens poll as high as 8 per cent.
History may be a less useful guide to this election than any other in recent times but the precedents are still foreboding for Labour. In the past 30 years, as data compiled by the former party official Hopi Sen shows, only one opposition (the Conservatives in 2005) has improved its poll ratings between the final conference season and the subsequent general election. The others have declined by between three and 13 points.
Oppositions have won while trailing on leadership or on economic management. In 1979, the Tories triumphed despite Jim Callaghan’s 19-point advantage over Margaret Thatcher as “the best prime minister” and Ted Heath defeated the more popular Harold Wilson nine years earlier. In 1997, as Ed Balls likes to remind his shadow cabinet colleagues, Labour trailed the Conservatives by seven points among all voters on “managing the economy” and by 22 points among those who said the issue was important. What no opposition has done is win while behind on both of these defining metrics. It is this that explains why some fear, as one shadow minister puts it, that: “The only way is down.”
What troubles MPs is the seeming lack of a “plan B” to revive the party’s fortunes (although aides promise major policy announcements on the economy and immigration). The “cost-of-living” frame, developed by the Labour leader’s director of policy, Torsten Bell, is regarded as astute but insufficient. “We haven’t successfully pivoted from that to offering an account of how we’d run the country differently,” I was told.
Jon Cruddas, the party’s policy review head, has long spoken of the need for Labour’s voluminous proposals to be anchored in a richer, deeper story of national renewal. But after the hasty abandonment of the “one nation” motif it is ever harder to identify the thread that binds seemingly disparate policy measures. The new theme of “together”, deployed 47 times in Miliband’s Manchester conference speech, has received little nourishment since. The result is that, despite Labour announcing more policy than any opposition in recent times, voters routinely complain that they no longer know what it stands for. Contrary to Conservative predictions, the cost-of-living crisis has not ended (after six years of decline, average weekly earnings remain 0.5 per cent below inflation). But ever fewer seem to regard Labour as the solution.
Alongside living standards, it is the issue of the NHS that party strategists want to define the election. “We’re going to return to it again and again and again, for political and policy reasons,” one told me. There is no issue on which the party enjoys a larger lead and no institution that is more cherished by the public. Some, however, question the value of a health-centred strategy. “Most people whose primary concern is the NHS are probably already going to vote for us,” one shadow minister said.
During previous periods of angst, Miliband has reassured his critics by delivering a bravura conference performance, as he did in 2012 (the “one nation” speech) and 2013 (the “energy price freeze” speech). But this year’s speech in Manchester, with its omitted passages on the deficit and immigration and its unremarkable content, had the reverse effect: it demoralised rather than inspired. Little Miliband has said or done since has assuaged his uneasy party.
No MP I have spoken to has argued that the Labour leader’s parlous ratings aren’t a problem or dismissed them as a “Westminster bubble issue”. “We’re all very, very concerned. The reality is that whilst we don’t have a presidential system, people are thinking increasingly about who they want to be the prime minister,” one shadow minister said. He went on to describe a “sobering moment” in which a voter told him: “You’ve been a fantastic MP, but I’m not going to vote for you. Because Ed’s not prime ministerial.”
“It did focus my own mind around the fact that you can be a good MP locally and well respected and even though it will be your name on the ballot paper, people will go into the polling booth mindful of who they want to do the top job,” he added.
Another shadow minister told a story with a happier ending for her party. After a traditionally loyal Labour voter threatened to withdraw his support on account of Miliband’s performance, she rebuked him and told him to focus on the loftier issues of the NHS and living standards. “Oh, right you are,” he replied. A vote was saved but the conclusion is a melancholy one for the Labour leader: a significant number of his party’s supporters will back Labour in spite of rather than because of him. The evidence from the doorstep aligns with that from the polls: the most recent YouGov survey found that 44 per cent of Labour voters believe Miliband is doing a bad job (compared to 3 per cent of Conservatives who say the same of Cameron), while research by Lord Ashcroft showed that only 55 per cent of the party’s supporters would rather have him as prime minister than Cameron.
In these circumstances, many in Labour argue that greater use should be made of the most talented shadow cabinet members with Miliband acting as a voice in the choir or as the captain of a team, rather than as a solo performer. At the Conservative conference, Cameron’s aides contrasted the prominence accorded to senior figures such as Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and William Hague with the narrowness of Labour’s approach, in which some frontbenchers were barred from making new announcements and restricted to a word count of 700 for their speeches.
The difference is that the Prime Minister’s team acts from a position of strength: Cameron continues to outpoll his party comfortably. In the view of one shadow minister, the worse Miliband’s approval ratings, the less willing his aides are to embrace “Team Labour” for fear of being seen to admit failure. Discussions on who will be “the faces” of the party’s general election campaign have yet to begin.
What most agree on is that the televised leaders’ debates, assuming they take place, could be the saving of Miliband. The common argument is that expectations will be so low that he cannot fail to impress. Strategists regard the debates as an opportunity for the Labour leader to speak directly to the country, unmediated by a hostile press devoted to humiliating him at every turn. The format, they believe, will favour his best-rated qualities: decency, empathy and cleverness. As the papers demonise him as the most dangerous man in Britain, the public may warm to the leader who wants to freeze their energy bill and build more affordable homes.
One senior MP suggested that Miliband should abandon Westminster, save for Prime Minister’s Questions, and go on a rolling tour of marginal constituencies. “The 200-400 voters in key seats who say on the doorstep that he’s the problem, he could win them round by talking to them.” But he doubted whether Miliband had the will to do so. “His confidence has gone. It’s like a light’s gone out,” he lamented.
The Labour leader has had his moments – the poleaxing of the Tories during the phone-hacking scandal, the energy price freeze coup, the battle with the Daily Mail after its smearing of Ralph Miliband (all points at which his personal ratings significantly improved) – but these have not formed a unified whole. Miliband is fond of mocking Cameron’s response to the question of why he wanted to be prime minister: “Because I think I’d be rather good at it.” But to most voters it remains unclear why he wants to be.
The answer, as Miliband tells friends, is to reduce inequality. By framing the general election as a battle to determine who the economy is run for, he aims to avoid a contest fought on the narrow terrain of fiscal competence. Labour’s reputation for profligacy, which the Tories hoped would condemn it to defeat, no longer seems destined to do so. Private polling by the party shows the deficit falling in importance to voters as the economy recovers and living standards rising in importance. The Tories like to present Miliband and Balls as “Mr Brown’s boys” but Labour focus groups show that few voters associate them with the last government.
The concern expressed by some shadow cabinet ministers is that the party’s “offer” is not equal to the “crisis” it has diagnosed. They say it is Labour’s failure to present a more radical prospectus that is driving voters towards Ukip and the anti-austerity Greens. One point of tension is Balls’s pledge not to borrow for new spending commitments, which has limited the potential for investment in mass housebuilding. At the conference of the left-wing think-tank Class on 1 November, Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary and shadow London minister, defied party policy and argued for the Treasury-imposed cap on council borrowing to be lifted to allow them to build more homes. Among Labour’s left, discussion frequently turns to the importance of ensuring that any defeat is blamed on an excess of caution, rather than of radicalism.
In these straitened times, the party draws consolation from the absence of any significant swing towards the Tories. Rather than being won over by the incumbent party, voters have deserted Labour for the SNP, Ukip and the Greens. The hope is that they will return as the election brings into focus the party’s status as the only force capable of slaying the Tory beast.
But tribal loyalties, as elsewhere in Europe, are fast diminishing. Where plausible alternatives to Labour exist, voters are embracing them. The fragmentation of the electorate is a milder version of the epochal shifts seen in Greece, where the radical Syriza now leads in the polls, and in Spain, where the left-wing Podemos, founded just eight months ago, also leads.
Labour is insulated by an antiquated voting system that favours it more than any other party. Based on some estimates, the Tories need to be three points ahead before they become the largest party. But the prospect of a victory achieved by arithmetical caprice dismays those who once aspired to ride a wave of anti-austerity discontent to win a mandate for far-reaching economic and political reform. “It’s a battle between a shit Labour Party and a shit Conservative Party,” said one Labour frontbencher, distilling the mood of resigned misery. “The winner will be the one that’s a little bit less shit.” Unable to inspire itself, Labour has never seemed further from inspiring the country.